WIC at 20: a formula for success

May 04, 1994|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Sun Staff Writer

Social service programs seldom prompt celebrations, but one, WIC, is so beloved that its 20th birthday will be celebrated twice this week -- today in Baltimore and tomorrow in Washington.

"WIC is such a specific, nutritional prescription for what a pregnant mother and a kid in early childhood need -- to get that start, to get ready to learn -- and that's a lot to celebrate," said Linda Eisenberg, executive director of the Maryland Food Committee. "It is a rare thing to hear anything negative about this program."

WIC -- the Supplemental Feeding Program for Women, Infants and Children -- is a federal program that gives poor women and children vouchers for infant formula and foods such as milk, cheese and eggs. Its roots are deep in Baltimore, which developed a forerunner.

A General Accounting Office study estimated that WIC saves $3 in potential medical costs for every $1 spent, and WIC is not among the many programs up for grabs in the push for national welfare reform. Although the program has some critics, it has withstood them over the years -- even prevailing in court over President Richard M. Nixon, who impounded its funds.

Simplicity seems to be the key. Practically fraud-proof, WIC appeals to those who want to police what people buy with food stamps or worry about a culture of dependency within the welfare system.

Recipients love it, too, so much that some, including Shari Harris of Highlandtown, end up working for WIC. She is a nutritionist's aide who spreads the word about WIC.

"We were all anemic, and it really helped me out," said Mrs. Harris, who credits WIC with making the difference between her first child, a girl who weighed less than 6 pounds at birth, and her second, a boy who weighed in at a healthy 8 pounds, 4 ounces.

To qualify for WIC, a woman must be pregnant or nursing and be considered "at risk" nutritionally. Children are eligible up to age 5. An income eligibility test is used, but one generous enough so that working poor families can qualify.

"One of the things about the WIC program is that we have a specific mission, and that mission is to have healthy children," said Joan Salim, the Maryland WIC director. "We feel we have saved children's lives."

The state estimates that it reaches about 70 percent of those eligible, serving 81,000 women and children at 101 sites. The program grew rapidly in the early 1990s, increasing its enrollment 84 percent from 1989 through 1993.

In Maryland, no longer considered a WIC growth state, the program receives about $40 million from the federal government and $750,000 from the state. Rebates on infant formula provide $15.2 million more to spend on vouchers.

WIC traces its lineage to Baltimore and Memphis, which set up similar programs in the late 1960s. In Baltimore, it was called IFIF -- Iron Fortified Infant Formula -- and involved handing out vouchers for formula only.

In the late 1960s, the nation was coming to grips with its hunger problem, yet prenatal care was dominated by ideas that seem quaint now: Pregnant women were scolded for gaining more than 22 pounds, and there was little concern about smoking and drinking during pregnancy. Infant anemia was rampant.

"We were really on the cutting edge," said Dr. David M. Paige, who, as a student at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, helped to develop Maryland's program with the founders of what became the Maryland Food Committee.

When Congress turned its attention to nutrition problems, the Maryland team was called to Washington to testify. WIC expanded the voucher program used in the state.

Since it began in 1974, WIC has seldom been threatened politically. It has broad support -- from the medical community, recipients, farmers and formula manufacturers.

But the program has detractors. Dr. George E. Graham of Hopkins, writing three years ago in the Wall Street Journal, criticized its high-fat commodities and said there was no proof that it worked. Behavior -- drinking, smoking and drug abuse -- was the problem, he wrote, not nutrition.

Dr. Paige shares similar concerns about the program's reliance on high-fat and high-cholesterol foods. But he said studies show that a WIC mother is less likely to have a low-birth-weight baby, which reduces the chance of infant death.

Today, however, there will be no contrary voices raised as Dr. Paige and others celebrate WIC's Baltimore beginnings at the WIC office in the Mount Zion Baptist Church, 2000 E. Belvedere Ave.

WIC foods are expected to be served -- along with cake.

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